Monthly Archive for March, 2010

Finding Nomar

My college days in New England overlapped with a large chunk of the salad days of the now-retired Nomar Garciaparra. I was surrounded by Red Sawks (and Yanks) fans for those years, and Nomar was the calling card of the pre-championship Sox. I learned, in time, to enjoy the company of these psychopaths, and I built up even an affinity for their ways, and that meant appreciating their devotion to their shortstop.

The reason, I think, that there’s such a national fascination with and disdain for Red Sox fans is that they are capable of creating a gunpowder fervor that is rare with many other fan bases. It can go either way: elation runs deep, and dissatisfaction festers and boils as hard a blood feud.

Nomar fueled the former, the celebratory side of the Sox fan’s dichotomy. He made Red Sox fans happy, and in those days it was a tonic against the since-evaporated angst: like a happy smile from a colicky baby. The cries of Nomah! that have since fallen into cliche were revelatory in their joy, coming from such a sad bastard people.

I was sure that Nomar Garciaparra would play his way into the Hall of Fame. A premier player in a big-time baseball city, one leg of the beloved ARod-Jeter-Nomar trifecta. I graduated from college in 2002, then left Vermont in 2003. In those years he was his usual great hitting self, with upper 20s home runs, over .300 average, etc.

Then I left, returning to the placid Houson Astros fan base. Next thing I know, Nomar is traded away, to the Cubs. A precipitous fall, it seemed to me, disentangled as I was from the daily churn of news and gossip in Red Sox Nation. Life teaches you, in small ways, that if you look away for a minute, something’s likely to change.

The Baseball-Reference blog tracked Nomar’s early potential, pointing out that through his age 29 year, the shortstop was among the best of all time. I am 29-years-old. Probably unrelated, but these things come to mind when an inconic player moves on. One’s own movings on. From some place to another place, for some reason or another, with varying levels of success and failure. Ballplayers start to mark off the autobiographical eras. Of the recent retirements, Frank Thomas marks my middle school days, and Nomar college.

Good on Nomar for making it to the top, even if his stay was shorter than some baseball romantics would have liked. The romantics want more than they should, and when they get it, they rarely know what, even, to do with it. Some even think that Nomar should make it to the hall. Not I, though. Some climbers don’t make it to the top, no matter how fast they make it to base camp one.

PnP Fantasy Baseball: Now with Actual Strategy!

On Eric’s recommendation, I just read Sam Walker’s book Fantasyland, about his madcap pursuit of victory in a league of fantasy baseball experts. On his heroic journey, Walker works to find a balance between the cold, hard numbers and the soft, gooey lives of the individual players. He is a sports journalist with clubhouse access, and he uses that to what advantage he can, against most of the objections of his sabermetrically gifted NASA-analyst employee, as they build a team.

It’s a drama for the times, and even if it’s from 2006 and the names have changed, the debate remains the same. I left feeling as conflicted as ever — also being so into fantasy baseball right now that I’m afraid my head will explode. (Note: I am extending Eric’s recommendation on to you, and I’m sure this won’t be the last you hear of this awesome book.)

Sam Walker, author of Fantasyland

One personalty- framing device of the book is strategy. Who uses it, who doesn’t, how one strategy can foil another, what market inefficiencies hidden talents are out there. The fantasy experts are renowned for their acronymical strategery, from drafting only cheap pitchers (this particular league was auction-based, but the same idea can extend to the draft position) to sticking with established, consistent stars, to chasing in on  the underrated young guns. With every goofy personality, there is a corresponding strategy. As I read and became fascinated with the acrobatics, I realized something: I employ very little significant strategy when I play fantasy baseball, and what little I have has been extremely successful.

I should preface by saying that mine isn’t a very strategic brain. While viewing the big picture looking for revealing trends, I’m often side-tracked by the proverbial passing butterfly, and an hour later I’ve forgotten what it was I was looking for in the first place. This just happened when my brother-in-law asked me to evaluate the overall worth of his old baseball card collection. I opened the trunk, caught of a whiff of old cardboard, and Wilkered away the next few hours poring over the right side of the top layer of cards.

My point being, I don’t surprise myself with my lack of proper fantasy planning. However, a few hours reading Walker’s book and a five hour plane ride across the country proved sufficient ingredients in the crucible to produce some real-life strategic thinking. This will be the year when I approach fantasy drafting with a sense of purpose, with a team point-of-view. I will exploit the prejudices of others; I will Beane them, and I will claim victory.

As Up in the Air and then The Blind Side played on the crappy little screen on the airplane, a mere day after the Oscars no less, I said to myself, “What is a real fantasy baseball strategy?” After I awoke from the hour-long nap that caused, I determined that strategy is finding value in something that others will overlook or ignore, thereby devaluing what they are pursuing (I got a C+ in the only economics course I ever took, FYI). The most valued stat, I figured, was home runs. The opposite of home runs are steals, and the opposite of slugging percentage is batting average. I would employ a strategy that valued steals and singles, and that treated home runs like Nate Silver at a Veterans Committee meeting.

I thumbed through a copy of SportsWeekly’s Fantasy Baseball addition, starring Chone Figgins and X-ing Evan Longoria; starring Brian Roberts and X-ing Adrian Gonzalez.

It was exhilarating.

For years I’ve drafted fantasy teams with that “best available” approach that I’m guessing a lot of amateurs like myself use. I had a sense of who I liked, who I thought would do well and who I had no interest in, but there wasn’t a unified theory. I wasn’t looking for a type of player, just good players. The hope was that this intuitive gathering of talent would result, obviously, in the best team. Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t, but ultimately I came out of the draft feeling like I’d just dreamed it and ended up with a list of dudes.

Not so with The Iron Kirtons. That’s the team I just drafted (Kirton is my middle name). They are swift, and small. I drafted them with a special knowledge of particular goals. I was focused in a way that I’d never been before in a fantasy baseball draft. I had particular targets, overlooked by many but with the kind of secret skills that would enable me to dominate the categories where others would lag: runs, batting average, steals. (I went with the old school categories in this league, as they feel kind of classic, and they allow room for a more diverse approach to Rotisserie strategy, which is important when you don’t know what you’re doing).

Because I know that you’re interested, here’s the starting lineup (with pitchers, I went with the usual selection of middle of the road starters in the middle of the draft, not much interesting there):

They won't be saying "Going, Going Chone" anytime soon, and that's fine with me.

C – Yadier Molina, 1B – Joey Votto, 2B – Brian Roberts, 3B – Chone Figgins, SS – Ryan Theriot, OF – Ryan Braun, OF – Carl Crawford, OF – Denard Span, Util – Hunter Pence, Util – Nyjer Morgan, Bench – Placido Polance, Bench – Adrian Beltre, Bench – Felipe Lopez

Yes, I know, it makes me slightly queasy too, this team of slap hitters and burners who are lucky to punch a homer out four or five times a year. But that’s the BEAUTY of it. I figure, if it makes me uncomfortable, that must mean that there’s a vision behind it. And that’s why I enjoyed drafting The Iron Kirton: there was a sense of purpose. I battled sweating palms as I let traditional sluggers pass by (except for 4th overall pick and pretty speedy slugger Braun, and irresistible high average slugger Joey Votto) because I trusted my plan. Whether or not the plan pays off this year, I will have learned something. I will have planned.

Fear us, Yahoo Public League #430362, for we are The Iron Kirton. We will steal. We have a plan.

The Killer Bees

Along with three friends, I am coaching a Little League team of seven, eight, and nine year olds. All four of us are in our early twenties. Needless to say, we are the only coaches in the league without kids of our own. Our goal? Utter domination. Throughout the season I will keep Pitchers & Poets readers updated on the goings on surrounding the team.

Our socks are yellow and our helmets are red. Our sponsor, as if some league executive parent was taunting us with the selection, is a second-rate college bar that was once the favorite haunt of Ted Bundy. After two practices, it’s safe to say that the difference between our best and worst player is the ability to catch the ball. The difference between our most mature and immature player is the ability to tie a shoe. Get ready, Seattle, for we are the Killer Bees.

The name Killer Bees was arrived at the way all great team names are: democratically. A lengthy nomination process and hasty hand-vote led to (approximately) the following results: seven votes for Killer Bees, four votes for Lightning Thieves, and one mildly contrarian vote for Killer Wasps. My choice was Lightning Thieves. Despite having not read a single Percy Jackson book, I supported the notion of a literary team name.  I’ve always dug that about the Baltimore Ravens.

But Killer Bees it is. Buzzzzzzzz. The first two practices have been a blast. So far, it seems that the kids all really want to be there. There are some egos, some serious shortcomings of confidence (high five, insecure kids), and some criers – a scenario that none of the coaches is at all equipped to deal with, except by saying “you’re tough right? Right? Alright! Get up!” There is also a legion of interested but not overbearing parent-volunteers. This is especially helpful for unpleasant tasks like umpiring and planning snack schedules.

What most defines Little League at this age is the wide range of skill sets you see amongst the kids. Some of them are totally ready for kid-pitch, as this level is called. Others are still working on getting the fingers in the right slots in their glove. But the learning curve is steep. Hopefully the kids who are furthest behind will be passable ballplayers by the end of the year.

As for the beginning of the year, there have certainly been some interesting developments. Our two most advanced players, by coach consensus are Jamie  and James. Jamie is a girl. She wears a bandana and has a great glove and arm, but still seems unsure at the plate. James is a boy. He is somewhat afraid of the ball when he’s on defense, but he hits like Rogers Hornsby. James, by the way, is our only returning player – this his third year coached by at least one member of our staff.

Jamie and James are just the beginning. Based purely on the first names of our players, I am very confident that we will go undefeated. In fact, I believe the Killer Bees’ 1-12 could compete with any old-time baseball lineup. Think along the lines of Sandys and Satchels, Mickeys and Lous.

More to come as the season rolls along…

*Editor’s Note: I have changed the last couple paragraphs to protect the players’ privacy. I won’t be using real names here.

Enter the Podcast!

This week, Pitchers & Poets turns One. To mark this momentous and surprising occasion, here is the inaugural PnP podcast. We’ve kept things short — it’s only about twenty minutes — so please give it a listen.